Week Zero Preview: Nebraska at Illinois

Illinois RB Chase Brown ran for 110 yards and two TDs in a 41-23 win at Nebraska last season.

Bret Bielema is set to make his return to the Big Ten on Saturday (Aug. 28) when his new team, Illinois, hosts Nebraska in the curtain jerker for both schools.

As of Aug. 15, most betting shops had Nebraska installed as a seven-point favorite with a total of 54.5. The Illini was +225 to +240 on the money line, while FanDuel was the lone spot that had the Cornhuskers at -7.5.

Nine days later, we still have Nebraska favored by seven at most spots, although FanDuel is now at -6.5. The ‘over/under’ is 55 points at most shops, while Illinois is +210 to +220 to win outright.

With Bielema set as the new leader of the Illinois program, his team doesn’t come into this game or this season with any pressure. Certainly not like it faced with Lovie Smith’s job on the line the last two years.

On the flip side, Scott Frost might be on the biggest hot seat in the country. Since returning to his alma mater fresh off a 12-0 season at UCF, the 46-year-old Frost has limped to a 12-20 straight-up record and a 14-18 against-the-spread mark in three years at the helm.

Nine of those 12 wins have come in Big Ten play. The Cornhuskers are 0-7 against ranked opponents.

Nebraska finished last season with a 3-5 SU record and a 4-4 ATS mark. There were three one-possessions losses at Northwestern (21-13), at Iowa (26-20) and vs. Minnesota (24-17). The Cornhuskers were +40 for the season in net yardage, but they were an abysmal -11 in turnover margin.

Nebraska returns 16 of 24 starters, including nine on defense, six on offense and its kicker. It only lost seven lettermen and five transfers have been added. Frost brought in his fourth straight Top-25 recruiting class, with this year’s haul ranking No. 20 nationally for the second straight year.

Fourth-year junior quarterback Adrian Martinez has started 27 of 32 games during Frost’s tenure. He has completed 481-of-749 passes (64.2%) for 5,628 yards with a 31/20 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Martinez has 1,776 rushing yards and 22 TDs with a 4.7 yards-per-carry average. He led the Big Ten in completion percentage last year, hitting 71.5 percent of his throws, and ran for a team-high 521 yards and seven TDs (5.7 YPC).

Unfortunately for Martinez, he lost his best wide receiver when Wan’Dale Robinson transferred to Kentucky. Robinson had 51 catches for 461 yards and one TD in 2020. The rest of his top targets are back, though, and Nebraska is hoping for big contributions from WR Samori Toure, a transfer from Montana who has 2,488 receiving yards in three years at the FCS level.

Another transfer, RB Markese Stepp, should play a major role. Stepp, a four-star recruit to USC who played three seasons for the Trojans, has a 6.1 career YPC average. Incoming freshman RB Gabe Ervin is also expected to get playing time right away.

Three starters with 53 combined starts are back on the offensive line, but this unit lost a pair of NFL draft picks in OG Matt Farniok and OT Brendan James, who went in the seventh and fifth rounds, respectively.

After the offense averaged 30.0 and 28.0 points per game in Frost’s first two seasons, that production dipped to a dismal 23.1 PPG average last year. That’s not going to cut it in 2021.

Nebraska’s defense allowed 29.4 PPG last season. This unit has already suffered a crucial loss, as senior linebacker Will Honas is done for the season due to a knee injury. Honas was the Cornhuskers’ second-leading tackler in 2020, producing 57 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and a pair of QB hurries.

Senior OLB JoJo Domann and senior DE Ben Stille earned preseason second-team All-Big-10 honors in Phil Steele’s preseason magazine. Domann paced the Cornhuskers in tackles last year with 58. He had 6.5 TFL’s, five passes broken up and one QB hurry. Stille had 27 tackles, three TFL’s, 1.5 sacks and three QB hurries in 2020. He has 13 sacks in 22 career starts.

The kicking game is in good hands with senior Connor Culp, who garnered first-team All-Big-10 honors last year. Culp hit all 20 of his PAT attempts and 13-of-15 field goals.

Illinois finished last season 2-6 SU and 3-5 ATS, parting ways with Smith after a 28-10 loss at 15th-ranked Northwestern. Without Smith, the Illini lost 56-21 at Penn St. in its regular-season finale.

In fairness to last year’s team, it had to play two games — a 31-24 loss vs. Purdue and a 41-14 loss vs. Minnesota — with its fourth-string QB starting after its top three QBs tested positive for COVID-19. Also, Illinois had to play five of its eight games on the road. After starting 0-3, the Illini bounced back to win 23-20 at Rutgers and 41-23 at Nebraska in consecutive weeks.

Bielema’s first team has 18 of 24 starters returning and lost only six lettermen. Illinois has added nine transfers, including five players from Power Five programs and one from Notre Dame.

Bielema announced Monday night that he won’t be releasing a depth chart, but Brandon Peters had been named the starting QB and one of six team captains. As of Monday night, third-year redshirt freshman Marquez Beason is the only player who is ‘out’ vs. Nebraska due to an injury. Beason is going to miss several weeks with a hamstring issue.

Beason, who was one of Smith’s top recruits as a four-star signee in the 2019 class, missed his first year after tearing his ACL. He started two games in 2020 and had seven tackles, but Beason, a two-way player at DB and WR in high school, has moved over to WR this season.

Peters has had accuracy issues throughout his career. In 2020, he completed only 39-of-80 throws (48.8%) for 429 yards, but he threw three TD passes without an interception. For his career that spans eight games at Michigan in 2017-18 and 16 at Illinois the past two seasons, Peters has connected on 249-of-465 attempts (53.5%) for 2,993 yards with a 25/11 TD-INT ratio. He has a 21/8 TD-INT ratio for the Illini.

One of the Power Five transfers is former Rutgers QB Artur Sitkowski, who was a four-star recruit by the Scarlet Knights. If a college player has ever needed a fresh start, it’s Sitkowski.

With former Rutgers head coach Chris Ash on the hot seat going into his third season in 2018, he threw the prize of his recruiting class into the fire right away as a true freshman. It was a humbling experience for Sitkowski, who had minimal talent around him going against Big Ten defenses.

In 11 games on a team that finished 1-11 and lost by 27 points or more five times, Sitkowski completed 49.1 percent of his throws for 1,158 yards with an atrocious 4/18 TD-INT ratio. He’s been better in seven games the last two years, completing 64 percent of his passes for 873 yards with a 4/2 TD-INT ratio.

In a 37-30 win at Purdue last year, Sitkowski led Rutgers back from a double-digit, second-half deficit by completing 19-of-28 passes for 152 yards and two TDs without an interception. Two weeks later at Maryland, he helped the Scarlet Knights capture a 27-24 win in overtime as six-point road underdogs. Sitkowski hit on 14-of-21 throws for 108 yards and one TD without an interception.

With Peters, Sitkowski and Matt Robinson, Bielema has three QBs with starting experience in the Big Ten. He actually has four, but Isaiah Williams has moved to WR. Williams was the Illini’s second-leading rusher last year with 389 yards, one TD and a 6.2 YPC average.

Sophomore RB Chase Brown garnered third-team All-Big-10 honors last season when he paced Illinois in rushing yards with 540. Brown had three rushing TDs and a 5.2 YPC average. He’ll be the featured back, but Bielema has a pair of veterans with loads of experience behind him.

Mike Epstein is back and hoping he can stay healthy like last year. From 2017-19, Epstein sustained three season-ending injuries, tearing his ACL once and breaking his foot twice. When healthy for 20 games, he’s produced 1,169 career rushing yards and 10 TDs while averaging 6.0 YPC. Epstein also has 16 receptions for 174 yards and one TD.

Unfortunately for Epstein, he’s missed 25 games. However, he played in seven of eight games last season, rushing for 367 yards and four TDs with a 5.3 YPC average.

Chase Hayden played at Arkansas from 2017-19 before spending last season at East Carolina. He has 678 rushing yards, five TDs and a 4.6 YPC average in 24 career games. Hayden also has 17 career catches for 127 receiving yards.

This trio of RBs will work behind an offensive line that’s No. 55 in Phil Steele’s National Unit Rankings. This group is led by center Doug Kramer, who has started 37 career games and is listed as the ninth-best center that’s available for the 2022 NFL Draft in Steele’s preseason magazine.

Illinois’ offensive line has 88 career starts and returns four starters from a group that allowed only 15 sacks and averaged 4.8 YPC on the ground in 2020.

Steele ranks Illinois’ defensive line at No. 32 in the country. Senior DE Owen Carney earned second-team All-Big-10 honors last year when he produced 28 tackles, seven TFL’s, five sacks, two QB hurries and one forced fumble. Carney has 9.5 career sacks and nine career QB hurries.

Senior LB Jake Hansen and Carney are preseason first-team All-Big-10 selections in Steele’s magazine and Hansen is also a fourth-team All-American. He was a second-team All-Big-10 choice last year when he contributed a team-best 68 tackles to go with 10 TFL’s, 2.5 sacks, two passes broken up, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and a pair of forced fumbles.

In 35 career games, Hansen has 242 tackles, 26 TFL’s, 10 forced fumbles, seven sacks, six fumble recoveries, three interceptions, three PBU and two QB hurries.

Fourth-year junior safety Sydney Brown leads the secondary. He has started all 26 career games he’s played in, producing 179 tackles, six PBU, five TFL’s, four interceptions, one pick-six (in a comeback win at Michigan St. when I had the Illini +550 on the money line!), one forced fumble and one QB hurry.

Illinois snapped a four-game losing streak in this rivalry when it went to Lincoln last year and captured a 41-23 win as a 16.5-point road underdog. Hansen led the defense with seven tackles, 2.5 TFL’s, one interception and one fumble recovery. LB Khalan Tolson had 10 tackles, one TFL, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

Brown ran for 110 yards and a pair of first-half TD runs on 26 workmanlike carries. Epstein finished with 113 rushing yards and one TD on 13 attempts, while Peters had 36 rushing yards and one TD on eight attempts. Peters completed 18-of-25 passes for 205 yards and one TD without an interception.

These teams will collide at Memorial Stadium in Champaign-Urbana at 1:00 p.m. Eastern on FOX.

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